The world is churning toward a future in which freelance work, not full-time employment, is the norm. By 2020, Intuit estimates that 43 percent of American workers will file 1099s. That statistic alone might make it sound like the gig economy is headed for nonstop growth, but if organizations don’t embrace the needs of the real professionals behind those numbers, the gig economy will collapse.
It’s easy to see how society has arrived at this point. People like to control their own workflows, and remote work helps make that a possibility. Now that digital tools allow remote workers to collaborate on projects from anywhere, video conference in an instant, and contribute during the traditional workday or in the middle of the night, barriers that once prevented remote work have all but disappeared. In fact, 70 percent of global workers do their jobs remotely at least once per week, according to IWG research.
Three trends are fueling the rise, and the evolution, of the gig economy. First, more companies are transforming into digital entities, which have greater needs for remote workers than businesses in other industries. Second, software options are growing more integrated. Small businesses now have access to tools that were reserved for enterprises just a decade ago, which opens a much wider range of opportunities for remote workers. Finally, these trends are encouraging businesses to lean harder on elastic infrastructures like co-working spaces and less on owned office space.
Before long, more workers will get certified in their skill sets and pick out jobs on the fly. The workforce of the future will get together at WeWork hubs, take care of their collective needs, then go their separate ways. Impermanence will replace stability — and unless companies look beyond hiring gig workers for tedious tasks only, it will be difficult to navigate that shift.
Meeting Freelancers Where They Are
My company has worked in workflow management for nearly a decade. I know the score. I’ve watched global usage trends shift dramatically over that time. Enterprises used to wait a decade or two before they set up new offices or hired their first employees abroad. Today, year-old businesses with a dozen employees are hiring and managing distributed workforces.
Failing to meet freelance professionals where they are would be far from the first time companies found themselves in hot water due to workers’ unmet needs. In the early 2010s, workers at global consulting firm PwC were consistently working far past 5 p.m. and far longer than 40 hours a week, as they had been doing for decades. But something new was happening: The company was hemorrhaging employees, and recruitment was becoming more difficult.
Leadership conducted a survey to find out why, and it revealed that workers wanted to take advantage of technology that allowed them to work remotely rather than spending all their time in the office. PwC quickly realized that if it wanted to stop the flow of employees out its doors and attract new talent, it needed to acquiesce — and fast. The organization rolled out a flexibility plan, and the vast majority of its workers still use it.
The increase in flexibility that PwC has embraced places the onus on the people participating in the gig economy now and in the future to use it to its full extent. They have an opportunity to bring together talent from around the world onto a single platform. Why should we limit this power’s utility to the benefit of those who sit in posh offices and let others do the dirty work? Thanks to the developing gig framework, we can build truly collaborative problems to share information and solve problems — finally making good on the original point of the internet.
Shifting Away From Busywork
Those who depend on the gig economy to live know the reality of the situation, though. Enterprises exist because they create value. If they don’t create value, they die. That value creation process happens in three layers. Executives create the vision and spot the opportunity, middle managers execute the strategies, and professionals complete the tasks. Unfortunately, those executives and middle managers have become obsessed with the literal tasks they can look to professionals in the gig economy to complete.
Companies in the very near future — and in some parts of the present — will be able to define complex projects, like entire marketing campaigns, and lean on gig workers to ideate and deliver on those visions. For the gig economy to avoid collapse, companies cannot simply ask people to complete mindless tasks. They must embrace professionals and respect the value they provide.
Aside from assigning out more meaningful tasks, companies also should consider their compensation plans for gig workers. Given the risks freelancers take on, it’s no surprise that their demands for better rewards should accompany the rise of the gig economy.
For an example of how to successfully manage freelancers, look no further than Stride Health. The organization works with freelancers at several popular gig companies to match 1099 workers to the right health insurance plans. Perks like healthcare, long the domain of full-time employees only, might become part of the deal for highly valued freelance workers.
Moving Into the Future of Freelancing
As murky as the waters of the gig economy might be, our collective desire to wade into the freelance future and demand clarity should surprise no one. Everything from our Netflix and Spotify queues to tailor-made advertising campaigns tells us we are unique creatures deserving of personalized treatment. It’s just a matter of time before freelance professionals demand the same individualized respect at work that they receive as consumers.
In sum, the gig economy cannot survive by leaning on college kids looking for extra cash in unskilled labor. That type of workforce abuse could lead to widespread strikes, hostile legal battles, and setbacks that would derail gig work for decades.
In order to avoid collapse as the market evolves, enterprises need to advance the way they think about the gig economy. They need to define the tasks and deliverables they want freelancers to achieve and ensure those deliverables don’t boil down to grunt work. Only when organizations learn to truly value and respect freelance professionals will the gig economy be able to flourish.